Prelude: Freundschaft
Two pairs of earrings, four bracelets, and a mixtape inspired me to write this
book. I was in the Stadtmuseum in the German city of Jena, peering into the
various display cases of an exhibit called Freundschaft! Mythos und Realität
im Alltag der DDR (Friendship! Myth and reality in everyday life in the GDR
[German Democratic Republic]). The exhibit ruminated on the official and
unofficial uses of the word “friendship” in the context of communist East
Germany between 1949 and 1989. In one case, the museum’s curators dis-
played the personal items of a teenage girl who had gone to a Freie Deutsche
Jugend (Free German Youth) summer camp in 1985. There, accompanying
some photos and a letter she sent home to her parents, sat a white cassette
tape, some plastic bracelets, and two pairs of oversized, cheap earrings, the
kind once fashionable in the mid-­ 1 980s when every girl’s hair was two stories
too high.
Back in 1985, I spent several weeks of my summer at a camp in the Cuyamaca
Mountains one hour east of San Diego. When I left home, I remember pack-
ing several pairs of the same horrible earrings, some plastic bangles, and a
stack of mixtapes with my favorite songs recorded off the local Top 40 radio
station. Standing in Jena thirty years later, I experienced one of those mo-
ments of radical empathy, and tried to imagine what my life would have been
like if I’d gone to summer camp in communist East Germany rather than in
capitalist California. This girl and I might have shared the same passion for
similar material objects, but we would have been ideological enemies, surviv-
ing our adolescences on different sides of the Iron Curtain.
From the placard on the display case, I understood that this girl was born
in 1971, one year after me. Somewhere out there, this girl was now a woman
about my age, and I longed to talk to her, to ask her what she remembered
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